Music: Frederick Loewe
Lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
If asked to name the musicals of Lerner and Loewe, even the most die-hard Broadway fan is unlikely to name Paint Your Wagon straight away. Debuting on Broadway in 1951 during the craze for ‘cowboy’ musicals, it is really now only remembered thanks to the dismal 1969 film adaptation that rewrote most of the plot, got rid of most of the songs and exposed the world to the singing ‘talents’ of Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. To add insult to injury, Marvin’s growling rendition of Wand’rin’ Star kept The Beatles’ Let It Be off the number one spot in the UK charts.
Masterworks Broadway have decided to help readdress the balance and have released this newly recorded cast album of the recent New York City Center Encores! production. This company’s commitment to rediscovering and breathing life back into lost Broadway classics is commendable work and for the first time ever Paint Your Wagon gets a soundtrack recording that it deserves.
Set during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, the story follows Ben Rumson who strikes it rich and presides over his own town populated entirely by fellow prospectors. This all-male community has a slight complication in the form of Ben’s head-strong young daughter Jennifer who then falls in love with an outsider – Julio, a Mexican who is forced to live outside of town due to his race – and the arrival of Jacob, a Mormon with two wives. Meanwhile, the gold seams are beginning to run dry.
Tonally and thematically, the show is close to two of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musicals, Oklahoma! and South Pacific – both of which predate this. Overall the score does not stand comparison with either of these nor with Lerner and Loewe’s later works, especially their masterpiece My Fair Lady. However it has many strengths, not least of which are two classic breakout songs (I Talk to the Trees and the aforementioned Wand’rin’ Star) and some genuine knee-slappin’ toe-tappers including There’s a Coach Comin’ In, Whoop-Ti-Ay and I’m On My Way (the lyrics of which supply the show which its title). Outside of these songs, the score is surprisingly melodious and sweeping with several standout ballads including the haunting They Call the Wind Maria and the heart-wrenching I Still See Elisa. Loewe provides some memorable and catchy tunes and Lerner’s lyrics while not his best, still have their moments including the genuinely witty Rumson Town and In Between.
The performances are all excellent with every single character being very clearly defined right down to the supporting players. Standouts are Keith Carradine as Ben (easily avoiding any comparison with Lee Marvin), Alexandra Socha as a very spirited Jennifer and Justin Guarini as Julio. The chorus and the orchestra are just as impressive and the overall production is very polished, occasionally perhaps a little too much so – the saloon songs which would have benefitted from being a little rawer.
Anyone familiar with Camelot’s score will find the bonus track fascinating. What Do Other Folks Do? was cut before the show opened but the concept of it would be later used for Camelot’s What Do the Simple Folk Do?
Although far from gold standard, nor is Paint Your Wagon deserving of slipping into obscurity and this recording certainly does the best it can with the material. If not entirely essential, this is a must buy for any fan of classic Broadway, the works of Lerner and Loewe or for those who simply love people bursting into song in the Old West. Now, could you please hand me down that can o’ beans?
Available from Sony Masterworks Broadway | Photo: Joan Marcus